These 30 American Colleges Are The Best At Getting And Spending Donation Money

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These 30 American Colleges Are The Best At Getting And Spending Donation Money

Some colleges are incredibly wealthy, while others have to spend carefully. Of their revenue streams, donations, in particular, are a hugely insightful way of assessing what a college is all about. Looking at where a college receives donations from and why can tell you a lot about the school overall. And seeing what a college spends this money on reveals even more about the place you might attend for four or more years. Many people that donate to a college are alumni, have professional interests with the college or have been wowed by the college’s graduates. They give their money to colleges because they believe the institutions will use it well. And this article identifies the colleges that get the most of this money and spend it in the best possible ways.

Going to a college with financial support from a range of backers has obvious advantages. The money that they receive goes into new buildings, equipment and all sorts of services that make the college better. But it’s not just having the money; it’s knowing what to do with it. For that reason, we’ve constructed this article to be something other than just any other list of colleges that have received huge investments. Instead, we’ve highlighted colleges that have received significant donation money and have demonstrated that they’re putting the money towards something that is beneficial to students.

Who knows, one day, when you’re earning lots of money thanks to your degree, you could be in the position to donate to a college and support the next generation of learners. It might sound far-fetched, but many of the people who donate to colleges nowadays never thought they’d be able to give the vast sums that they do.

The information in this article can help with your overall college decision. You’re going to be spending a lot of money during your college years. To ensure that this money is well invested, you need to know that your college is spending its money well, too! Even if the colleges below aren’t right for you, this list can still help. You can compare the entries with the donations that your college options have received. If they similarly have people voluntarily giving lots of money, then the colleges are surely worth attending!


To determine the colleges that are using their donation money in the best possible ways, we’ve researched many sources. All of these sources are recent and contain the most up to date information available on the internet. The specific sources are:

Inside Higher Ed, Giving to Colleges Rises by 6.3%:

US News, 10 Universities Where the Most Alumni Donate:

Forbes, 2017 Grateful Grads Index: Top 200 Best-Loved Colleges:

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Major Private Gifts to Higher Education:

11 Huge Gifts Made to Universities by the Super-Rich Over the Past Decade:

The information below compiles a range of information in the sources above, so that you don’t have to spend hours trawling through them. Additionally, to make sure that our article is accurate, we’ve performed our own research into the colleges and looked at statements at what has happened with the monetary donations. Our overall ranking is placed by evidence of the donation having an impact, size of entire donation, alumni donation amount and innovative use of the donation money.

Our results, from 30 to one, are below:

Rank School Location
1 Stanford University Stanford, CA
2 Columbia University New York City, NY
3 Johns Hopkins University Baltimore, MD
4 Harvard University Cambridge, MA
5 Dartmouth College Hanover, NH
6 Cornell University Ithaca, NY
7 California Institute of Technology Pasadena, CA
8 University of Washington Seattle, WA
9 University of California, San Francisco San Francisco, CA
10 University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA
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  1. Stanford University

    Stanford, CA

    Stanford University is one of only two colleges in America to raise over $1 billion in donations overall in 2017, with Harvard being the other. However, the alumni donations are much higher at Stanford when compared to Harvard (as is alumni satisfaction). In 2017, the 10-year median donations per student to Stanford was $30,826. And overall, grads were the 13th most grateful. Unlike Harvard, Stanford has received two $400 million donations to date, with the first happening in 2001 and the second happening in 2016. This latter donation, which was given by the Nike Co-Founder and Chairman Phil Knight, has created the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program, which recruits, "graduate students around the globe to address society's most intractable problems, including poverty and climate change."

  2. Columbia University

    New York City, NY

    This New York City-based college has managed to consistently attract $100 million+ donations. In 2017, it managed to gain the joint highest financial donation ever made to an American college, at over $600 million. And from 2006 to 2017, the Columbia University managed to gain seven $100 million+ donations. The latest such donation occurred in December 2017 and totaled $250 million from Roy and Diana Vagelos. This money will replace needing medical students' loans with full scholarships. Large donations from a select group of alumni, such as Roy Vagelos, have meant that in 2017 Columbia University got a large median donation per graduate compared with its graduation appreciation score. Forbes's ranking states that alumni are only the 52nd most grateful for Columbia's education, but that the average 10-year alumni donation amount per student is $20,708.

  3. Johns Hopkins University

    Baltimore, MD

    Former New York City mayor and finance industry innovator Michael Bloomberg is a strong patron of Johns Hopkins University. The Street notes that his $350 million donation to the college in 2013 meant that he has now given over $1 billion to the college to date. The source also points out that this makes Bloomberg the most generous donor to a college who is still alive. However, The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that since this donation, Bloomberg gave the college an additional $300 million in 2016. The money that Bloomberg has given to Johns Hopkins University has led to the construction of, "a physics building, a school of public health, a children's hospital, a stem-cell research institute, a malaria institute and a library wing […] and has financed 20 percent of all need-based financial aid grants to undergraduates." As you may have predicted, Michael Bloomberg is himself an alumnus of the college and is incredibly grateful for the education the college gave him. When the entire donations to Johns Hopkins University in 2017 are combined, the total figure is $636 million.

  4. Harvard University

    Cambridge, MA

    When it comes to overall funds raised through donations, Harvard University comes out on top. Inside Higher Ed reports that the total sum donated to this Ivy League college in 2017 stood at $1.28 billion. However, the other methodology sources show that where this money comes from is what makes the college stand out. Alumni of Harvard is not as keen as giving to their institution as some, Forbes reveals. In 2017, the college was the 26th most appreciated by grads and received $25,122 in 10-year median donations per student. But in terms of major monetary gifts to the college, Chronicle of Higher Education reports that its largest one was in 2015 and was of $400 million from John A. Paulson, an alumnus. While this donation received some criticism when announced, there is plenty of evidence that the money is being well invested. The money has gone into expanding Harvard's newest college, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Specifically, it is funding, "state-of-the-art research and teaching facilities."

  5. Dartmouth College

    Hanover, NH

    When factoring 10-year median donations per student and three-year alumni donation participation together, Forbes considers Dartmouth College to have the most grateful grads in America. While it tops one methodology list, the other lists reveal that the college doesn't have the large scale financial backing that other prestigious colleges receive. Chronicle of Higher Education notes that to date, Dartmouth College has only received two $50 million+ donations. One was for $100 million in 2014, and another was for $50 million in 2009. However, the college is aiming to give its donations a major boost in the coming years. In 2018, it launched the Call to Lead campaign, which aims to raise $3 billion by 2022. This funding will ensure that it can offer need-blind admissions for all students, invest in scientific research, create a leadership program for all students, innovate the campus buildings and much more.

  6. Cornell University

    Ithaca, NY

    In 2017, Cornell University managed to gain the third most overall donations of any college in America, according to Inside Higher Ed. The overall figure stands at $743.5 million. However, median 10-year alumni donations are lower than many other colleges in this list, at $15,267 per student, according to Forbes. Its largest ever donation took place as long ago as 2011 but was for an impressive $350 million. This money came from Atlantic Philanthropies and really helped Cornell take on and teach many more deserving students. It funded a two million square foot graduate science institution in the heart of New York City. This new campus opened in 2017 and is transforming the tech world in the city.

  7. California Institute of Technology

    Pasadena, CA

    Caltech is tied with Columbia University for the largest ever donation to any college in America, at $600 million. However, the Caltech donation was made 16 years before the other college's, in 2001, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education. Caltech certainly owes a lot to Gordon Moore, the alumnus who donated the money to the college. He and his wife Betty have given Caltech several more significant donations in the years since, including a $100 million gift in 2015. It is because of this generosity that Forbes states that on a median level, Caltech received the most donation money per student of any college over the last 10 years, with a median of $53,845. However, when analyzing the percentage of students who actually gave to the college, it reveals that only 19% did so.

  8. University of Washington

    Seattle, WA

    While the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates did not attend the University of Washington (or even graduate from any college,) the college has been instrumental in his company's success. This is because the college used to allow Gates and the other co-founder, Paul Allen, to conduct personal research and computer programming in its facilities. Additionally, Gates's father earned a law degree from the college. For these reasons, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $279 million in 2017, which was the largest of many major donations that the foundation has given to the college. This money has gone into funding the activities of the college's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation for an entire decade. Additionally, in 2017, University of Washington had the 12th highest donations of any college in America, at over $553 million.

  9. University of California, San Francisco

    San Francisco, CA

    This college is one of a few on this ranking that does not appear in Forbes's list of the 200 most grateful alumni study. However, it secures its place here due to non-alumni funding. Inside Higher Ed states that the college had $422 million of total donations in 2017. However, in 2018, the college managed to exceed this amount by February with a single donation from the Helen Diller Foundation of $500 million. This money was given to create a new world-class hospital in the Bay Area.

  10. University of Southern California

    Los Angeles, CA

    To date, the two biggest financial donations that the University of Southern California has received were both for the sum of $200 million. And in 2017, it was the American college with the fifth most donations, with over $668 million in total. Many financial donations at the University of Southern California go into supporting health care research and practice. For instance, a $50 million donation led to the foundation of the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, which is taking on vital issues, such as life-saving drug creation.

  11. Princeton University

    Princeton, NJ

    Inside Higher Ed's list of colleges with the most overall donation money in America neglects to feature Princeton University. However, the college ranks highly on our list for two reasons. Firstly, its student enrollment numbers are significantly lower than many colleges on this list, meaning that alumni give a disproportionately high amount, even if it doesn't rank in the top 20 largest sums. For comparison, in 2017-2018, Princeton had an enrollment of 8,273 total students. But in the same year, Harvard had an enrollment of approximately 22,000. Forbes reveals that Princeton's alumni are significantly more generous, donating a median of $28,869 over 10 years compared to a Harvard student's median of $25,122. Secondly, in recent years, Princeton has received incredibly valuable donations, just not in the form of money. For instance, the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that in 2015, William H. Scheide donated $300 million worth of rare books and manuscripts.

  12. University of Chicago

    Chicago, IL

    Both alumni and non-affiliated philanthropists have been giving money to the University of Chicago. This means that the college ranked 14th for most money received in 2017, with $483.47 million overall, according to Inside Higher Ed. The alumni of the college are the 19th most generous, according to Forbes. And the most generous of all of these alumni is David Booth, who gave $300 million in 2008, according to The Street. That money went to the college's business school to attract star faculty, expand research and launch intellectual programs.

  13. Yale University

    New Haven, CT

    A $160 million donation from Edward P. Bass in 2018 has ensured that Yale University's ranking will improve on most methodology sources next year. Bass's donation itself will go into renovating and expanding Yale's Peabody Museum. On the current methodology lists Forbes notes that Yale was the college with the 13th most grateful alumni and received a median of $31,936 per graduate in 10-year donations in 2017. Perhaps the most beneficial donation for students in Yale's history was Charles B. Johnson's $250 million in 2013, which funded the construction of two new residential colleges on campus.

  14. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    Cambridge, MA

    Patrick J. and Lore Harp gave MIT a $350 million donation in 2000. This was the second highest amount ever given to a single college in the world at the time, according to Chronicle of Higher Education. In more recent years, MIT hasn't been able to match the size of that donation, with $140 million in 2017 being its next most impressive sum. However, on average MIT alumni give more to the college than most others. The media donation of each student 10 years after degree completion is $47,755, according to Forbes. Current Massachusetts Institute of Technology donations go into its Campaign for a Better World, which funds discovery science, environmental sustainability, human health initiatives and much more. The college's overall donations in 2017 totaled $672 million.

  15. University of Pennsylvania

    Philadelphia, PA

    The last single donation to the University of Pennsylvania to exceed $100 million happened in 2011, when Raymond G. and Ruth Perelman gave $225 million. However, the college receives vast amounts of smaller sums from alumni. Forbes notes that in 2017, the college's 10-year median donations per student amounted to $20,132 and that its alumni are the 20th most grateful in the country. This contributed to the college receiving the seventh most donations in 2017 overall, at $626 million. People donating to the University of Pennsylvania can easily allocate their funds to different areas of the college. This is because the college has created an online donation system where people can give to either The Penn Fund, schools, undergraduate financial aid, medical research, and other areas.

  16. Amherst College

    Amherst, MA

    In the last 10 years, Amherst has benefited from two $100 million donations, one in 2009 and one in 2018. Both were from anonymous sources. And as the college has a small enrollment of under 2,000 students, that money goes a long way. The 2018 donation will go toward funding, "a new interdisciplinary science center." And percentage wise, Amherst's alumni are some of the most generous in the country. Forbes names them the fifth most grateful, with 45.2% of students donating to the college from 2014 to 2017

  17. University of Notre Dame

    Notre Dame, IN

    When it comes to the total amount of money donated, University of Notre Dame received the 16th highest figure in 2017, at $451 million, Inside Higher Ed states. Forbes considers the college's graduates to be the eighth most generous in their donations. And the generosity of the college alumni looks to be increasing. For instance, in 2017, the college received its highest ever donation of $100 million from alumnus Kenneth Ricci. Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the previous highest donation to the college was in 2014 for $75 million from alumnus John W. Jordan.

  18. Williams College

    Williamstown, MA

    Forbes states that Williams College alumni are the third most grateful in America. This means that even though it has one of the smallest alumni communities on this list, the members give a disproportionate amount compared to many who studied at national universities. US News states that over a two year period, 53.6% of graduates donate, making it one of only five colleges in America where more than half of the graduates regularly do this. And one thing that makes Williams College stand out compared to many other colleges is that its younger alumni are donating more enthusiastically than ever before. In 1971, the young alumni donation rate was just over 40% of graduates. In 2011, the young alumni donation rate was almost 55%.

  19. New York University

    New York City, NY

    The 2017 Forbes study reveals that in recent years, alumni donations at New York University were shockingly low. Just 5.9% of NYU graduates gave money to their alma mater in the three years preceding the study. However, non-alumni donations were considerable, meaning that Inside Higher Ed could name it as the college with the 11th most donations in 2017, at $567 million. What many consider to be the most valuable donation in NYU's history came from Sir Harold Acton. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in 1994, he gave the college a 57-acre Italian estate, a large collection of Renaissance art and $25 million in cash.

  20. Claremont Mckenna College

    Claremont, CA

    This college has a tiny enrollment of just over 1,300 students. But it also has lots of money in the bank thanks to graduates. Forbes states that the college's students are the sixth most grateful. Though only 35.6% of students have donated from 2014 to 2017, the large amounts given mean that on a median level, the cash would work out to a donation of $23,595 per student over 10 years. However, just over a decade ago, alumnus Robert A. Day gave a major donation of over $200 million to Claremont Mckenna College. At the time, that was the, "largest recorded gift to a liberal arts college." This money created the Robert Day Scholars Program, which aims to identify future leaders and provide for them a world-class education.

  21. Washington and Lee University

    Lexington, VA

    To date, Washington and Lee University has had one major $50 million+ donation. In 2007, an anonymous donor gave $100 million. This sum most likely helped Forbes's 2017 assessment of grateful alumni. The source named the college as having the 12th most grateful students, despite only 37.4% of students donating in the last three years. One of the most original donation opportunities at Washington and Lee University is for the college's Mock Convention events. For 110 years, the convention has attempted to predict, "who the party out of power in the White House will nominate to run for President." For 2020, the Mock Convention aims to gain $500,000 in funding.

  22. Duke University

    Durham, NC

    The Chronicle of Higher Education shows that Duke University has never had a single $100 million+ donation in its history. The largest single donation received to date was $80 million in 2011. However, it makes 10th place on Inside Higher Ed's top total donations in 2017 list, with $581 million due to the quantity of smaller donations. Forbes notes that in 2017, the median 10-year donations amounts per graduate was $32,107 (the source also considers Duke to have the ninth most grateful students overall). The most successful financial campaign that Duke University has ever run was Duke Forward. This campaign aimed to gain $3.25 billion but actually managed to gain $3.85 billion from over 300,000 donors over 7 years. This money benefits all of Duke's schools as well as its athletics, libraries, health services and more.

  23. Wellesley College

    Wellesley, MA

    Wellesley College is incredibly lucky among small liberal arts colleges. This is because it is one of very few that have received a $50 million+ donation. This came in 2015, from two anonymous alumni, Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The money funded an expansion of Wellesley College's career services. This donation has helped the college rank on other methodology lists. For instance, Forbes reports that it is the college where alumni are the 10th most grateful. But on a median basis, 10 year donations per student are low (for this list) at $17,451. However, US News states that over a two year period, 49% of alumni does donate, even if it is for a lower than average amount.

  24. Bowdoin College

    Brunswick, ME

    Although Bowdoin College has never received a major donation of $50 million or more, it makes up for it with alumni donation percentages. US News states that over a two year period, the college had 54% of alumni donating, the third highest amount in America. Forbes also considers Bowdoin's alumni to be the fourth most grateful in America, due to consistent donations. Bowdoin College has been able to sustain such consistent donation amounts due to the way it encourages alumni to donate on a recurring basis. For instance, the 1794 Society is made up of alumni who pledge to donate increasing amounts in the years after graduation. In the first and second years after graduating, the alumni give between $100 to $2,499. And in the ninth year after graduating, the alumni give between $1,000 to $2,499.

  25. Carleton College

    Northfield, MN

    The two year and three-year donation rates presented by US News and Forbes on Carleton College show some interesting information. The lists suggest that Carleton College's alumni may be giving less as time goes on. US News's two-year alumni donation rate information tracks the fiscal years of 2014 to 2015 and 2015 to 2016, when it discovered that 48.5% of Carleton's alumni donated. However, Forbes states that in 2017, the three-year alumni donation rate had fallen to 43.6%. But the list does also name the alumni as the 17th most grateful overall. One thing that helped the small liberal arts college is a $20 million donation from the Weitz family in 2016. Five of the family members are alumni. This money funded needs-based scholarships.

  26. Emory University

    Atlanta, GA

    The Chronicle of Higher Education states that in 1996, Emory University managed to receive a $295 million donation from the Lettie Pat Evans, Joseph B. Whitehead, and Robert W. Woodruff Foundations. The money funded health sciences and was at the time by far the largest sum ever donated to a college, with the next largest quantifiable sum being $125 million in 1981. However, in 2018, the Woodruff Foundation announced that it was giving the college an even larger sum of $400 million, again for health sciences. (This sum has not yet been added to Chronicle of Higher Education's list) The only downside with Emory University is that its alumni donation level is somewhat low, with just 13.9% of students donating from 2014 to 2017, according to Forbes.

  27. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

    Troy, NY

    By 2017, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, based in Upstate New York, only ranked at 128th for graduate appreciation, according to Forbes. However, in 2001, it received a world-changing $360 million donation from an anonymous source, which still stands as the 11th highest US college donation of all time, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. This gift was given to the college with no restrictions upon its use. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute decided to spend the money on more than doubling its research activities and enrolling a significantly higher amount of graduate students.

  28. Oregon Health & Science University

    Portland, OR

    Forbes and US News neglect to feature Oregon Health & Science University on their alumni lists. However, the non-alumnus Nike Founder Phil Knight and his wife Penelope donated $500 million to the college in 2015, Chronicle of Higher Education and The Street report. This donation is currently the third highest sum of money ever given to a US college. However, prior to this, Phil and Penelope Knight had twice donated $100 million to the college in 2014 and 2008. The $500 million donation was given to, "speed the translation of scientific discoveries into ‘real world impact.'"

  29. Carnegie Mellon University

    Pittsburgh, PA

    Although he never studied at Carnegie Mellon University, in 2011, the industrialist William S. Dietrich II donated $265 million to the college, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. This money allowed the college to create global initiatives, studies focused on connecting technology and the arts, scholarships, research and much more. However, Carnegie Mellon's alumni donations are lacking, with Forbes's 2017 study revealing that just 14.6% of graduates had given money to the college in the last three years, making the college rank at 64th for most grateful alumni.

  30. Davidson College

    Davidson, NC

    The methodology lists show that Davidson College's alumni are consistent with their donations. US News's 2016 two year graduate donation amounts research states that 47.1% of students had donated. Forbes's 2017 three year donation amounts research states that 45.5% of students had donated. However, the college has not received any major level donations in recent years. The largest individual sum was an anonymous donation in 2016, for $2.5 million, which was primarily intended to fund basketball scholarships. But the college has become ever more innovative in its donation sourcing. For instance, since 2015, it has used GiveCampus, a digital fundraising platform that allows millennial alumni to give money easily.

By BVS Staff
July 2020

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